“How often can you get a half a billion dollar return on a $100,000 grant?”

Tue, 23 Mar 2021

This is part of a series where we explore system change in action – what drives it, how it happens and its outcomes. At the centre of the series is the question – what can we do to create lasting social change?

Almost 12 months ago, the head of The Origin Foundation, Sean Barrett, had a telephone conversation with the then-CEO of The Grattan Institute, John Daley. Once the pleasantries had been exchanged, the conversation quickly focused on the Foundation’s concern at the potential impact the COVID-19 pandemic’s gathering momentum would have on the education of the nation’s disadvantaged children.

Across the country, governments were deliberating on what to do with schools: close them and offer remote learning or try to keep going in the face of rising COVID cases. There was, at the early stage of COVID-19’s spread, no way of knowing how the move to remote schooling would impact schoolchildren who were already on the margins of educational engagement. What Sean knew though was that disadvantaged kids whose education was interrupted could be anywhere up to three years behind by the time they reached Year 10.

By the time the call between Sean and John was over, the Origin Foundation had given Grattan a $100,000 grant to conduct a rapid and thorough research project on the potential impact of schools closing and the introduction of remote schooling on disadvantaged kids. Just as important, was the guarantee that Grattan’s report also included a recommended solution. After that, Sean involved his board.

The Origin Foundation’s focus is disadvantaged children. Its board has also adopted a strategy – whether it was applied to the 2019-20 bushfires or the pandemic – to allow some funding flexibility that would enable its partners to respond to the crisis. “We were hearing from some school principals that if some of these kids’ education was interrupted through school closures, that some of those kids would give up because it would become too hard for them. Some of them wouldn’t go back to school when they re-opened and they would become totally disengaged,’’ Sean says.

Photo of Julie Sonnemann,
Education fellow at Grattan Institute.

The Foundation found a willing ally in the Grattan Institute. “We needed a report to convince people to listen to what problem we’re solving for, but we also needed the solution and that’s when Grattan came: we knew we could work with them around that,’’ Sean says.
The lead on the Grattan work fell to Julie Sonnemann, an economist with expertise in education. Within 10 days of the conversation between Sean and John, she had started the work. Julie knew from several international research articles that the remote schooling that was being adopted through the pandemic was likely to have a big negative impact on learning. But the solution was another challenge – some of the literature pointed to summer schools as providing a catch-up for those kids who were missing out on attending school. The complicating factor was the urgency – whatever solution was going to be recommended had to be rolled out quickly.

The Grattan Institute has been providing a range of benchmark reports, analysis and resources on national policy debates since 2008. It is a credible and significant contributor to the national policy agenda. But its reports often take several months to complete. The Foundation grant enabled Grattan to increase the research staff on the remote schooling report, and for it to become an internal work priority. “Basically, because we have complete autonomy over what we write, we can scope a report that is shorter, and that’s what we did…because we knew governments were looking for solutions quickly,’’ Julie explains. Final agreement was reached on the shape of the project at the end of April 2020. The deadline was fixed for mid-June, a six-week turnaround that reflected the urgency of the task. Julie and the Grattan team got to work.

One of Grattan’s strategies was to tap into the UK’s Education Endowment Foundation, which was doing similar work on remote schooling to enable a shared literature review to evolve that not only created a mutual resource but helped save time. It soon became clear that the summer school idea was not going to work in Australia and a tutoring model emerged as the best option. The research on summer schools just wasn’t sufficiently convincing. “That really came down to “is there evidence that summer schools not only work in small studies but also for large numbers of students, and the evidence there was less strong compared to tutoring,’’ Julie says. “The other factor was how quickly could this be rolled out in Australia? And we have much less of the culture around summer school in Australia, unlike the US.’’

There was another factor that supported the tutoring ahead of the summer schools: the pre-existence of small-group tuition in many Australian schools. “A lot of teachers try to do work in small groups already – it’s just that they don’t have the extra person to help them or if they do have the extra resource, they don’t have the money to train that resource,’’ Julie says.
So, the path ahead was starting to emerge. The Grattan team met the Origin board to let it know how they were progressing. Grattan’s recommendation was going to be for a government-funded tuition program. Sean remembers the discussion. “The figures [to pay for the proposal] were eyewatering,’’ he recalls. One board member delivered his adjudication: “It won’t fly. It’s going to cost too much.’’ John Daley was far more sanguine: his plan was to lobby Treasury departments around the country because this was a national crisis. There were fiscal stimulus packages on offer to help support such initiatives. An appeal that also included Treasuries, not just the state-based Education Ministers, offered an efficient and direct way to fund a solution.

Sean believed the pandemic was dramatically changing the conventions of decision-making, across the board. “I thought we were entering a whole new period when all the old decision-making would go out the window and governments would have to react in very different ways and I was banking that this wasn’t going to be business as usual,’’ he says. “If we could get the work done quickly and it was thorough and focused on solutions rather than problems then you were halfway there – governments wouldn’t have time to do this work themselves, they needed people they trusted coming to them with solutions.’’

Photo of Sean Barrett,
CEO of Origin Foundation.

Grattan’s 40-page report Covid Catch-up: helping disadvantaged students close the equity gap met the deadline and was published on June 15. It concluded that the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and the rest of the student body widens three times more quickly during remote schooling. But the evidence showed that a good tutoring program could be established quickly and potentially provide students with four to five months additional learning over one to two school terms.

Now, the other critical part of the work began – to socialize the report. Normally, the Grattan team would spend some time before a report’s release talking to government and other stakeholders, but the urgency compressed those timeframes too. The strategy was built around high media exposure through interviews and opinion pieces, plus more than 30 private briefings with government policymakers following the report’s release. “Six weeks to write the report, and six weeks plus to do the advocacy,’’ Julie says. “I actually think the engagement was a lot better because people were slightly easier to get access to on Zoom. I could do a lot of briefings around the country really quickly. We got extremely good engagement from policymakers because it was timely. I expect we were providing advice when they were wanting and needing advice…and I think we’re a trusted voice because we’re independent.’’

Initially, the discussions had focused on engaging the Federal Government to support a tuition program because in the early months of the pandemic it seemed that a national education strategy was likely. But as the states navigated their exposure to the virus with separate lockdowns, it soon became clear that Victoria and NSW would need to provide their own response to remote schooling. Julie had already spoken to both state governments, including their treasurers and Education ministers. Victoria was the first to indicate that it supported the tuition idea when Education Minister James Merlino flagged the initiative at the Victorian COVID inquiry. In October, Victoria announced it would spend $250 million in 2021 to hire 4,100 tutors to help support any student who had been left behind or become disengaged through the pandemic’s remote schooling, citing Grattan’s work as a key piece of research behind the decision. NSW followed suit with a $337 million package for its own version of small-group tutoring. Around the same time, the South Australian government announced a small maths tutoring pilot of $3 million for 2021.

By any measure, it was an extraordinarily successful policy intervention. Julie has a range of observations about what helped this initiative work and intrinsic to that was the Origin Foundation’s role. One key factor was Origin Foundation’s strategic approach to funding research, not just programs, to tackle social disadvantage in Australia. “Origin Foundation genuinely backed the idea of research and advocacy in this space, which is not the sexiest proposition for a funder…but really targeted research can have very large impact for more people if government policy change is successful, as we achieved in this partnership,’’ Julie says. “A $100,000 research grant turned into a $587 million education initiative within six months – that is truly strategic collaboration in action.’’
Another intrinsic factor was the way the Foundation conducted its role as a funder. “It was one of the most outstanding partner relationships from my perspective because they were so respectful of the independence of Grattan and genuinely giving funding to find a solution without necessarily knowing what that was going to be in advance,’’ Julie says. “We reported directly a couple of times to the Foundation during the project and they asked questions, but they were extremely professional in how they saw their role as a funder and how they saw our role in giving expertise,’’ she says.’’

Sean is the first to describe the Foundation’s role is as a facilitator. “We do not see ourselves as experts or participants in terms of having the expertise of saying what’s right and what’s wrong,’’ he says. “The board knows the questions to ask to see that we’re addressing the problem and the questions to ask a potential partner to see if that partner is capable of delivering.’’

Julie also identifies the importance of engaging Treasury – federal and state – in the lobbying, made more logical during COVID because of its control of the purse strings. “I think sometimes …philanthropy in general and advocacy in general, can focus on the minister who’s responsible for a particular area without going to the mechanics of how governments make decisions internally – treasurers are keys to getting any good ideas funded,’’ Julie says. “Having John Daley on the project, who works a lot on budget reform, was fantastic: he could see what Treasuries were prioritizing in terms of the fiscal stimulus and in terms of employment benefits that was really important to Treasury at that time. Any measure that could help create jobs meant that we could point that out in our report, and I do think it was one of the reasons we got it up.’’

“I do think Grattan’s reputation, not just in education but also in its government lens did help make this a success and for any kind of systems change, it’s not just about selling the idea to the minister – the relevant minister or the relevant department – but [considering] how it’s attractive to Treasury and the finance departments,’’ Julie says.

But how robust is this model of funding, research and advocacy? Will it outlast a pandemic crisis?

“I think one of the really key findings in this report, when we were looking at the evidence of what works, our framework wasn’t just grounded in success in academic trials,’’ Julie says. “It was looking at what interventions have worked across many schools at scale. So, from a government perspective, they want some assurance if they pull this lever, that there’s some evidence that this has worked at a whole lot of schools and I think when you can talk to them in that language I think that’s a lot more comfort about the risk level of the investment. That’s a really important framework.’’

“For the next couple of years with the impact of COVID, on jobs and social issues generally in Australia there will be a big need for innovative social solutions, so I’m optimistic this window that has been here now will be around for quite a bit longer,’’ Julie explains. “But I also think … it’s about having the best idea and strategically waiting for the right moment for it. At some point that strategic window of opportunity will open and when that happens, you really do need to go hard.’’

Sean is still considering what it could mean for the Foundation. “How often can you get a half a billion dollar return on a $100,000 grant?” But he knows one thing. “When governments act quickly and try new ideas we should applaud and support that. This is what ‘building back better’ should look like: Philanthropy, social policy experts, and government collaborating on systemic change. Then something good will have come from this pandemic.”